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Discussion Open! - Citing French Documents As Genealogical Sources


Dear Readers, we ask your help with citation of French documents following the principles of Elizabeth Shown Mills's "Evidence Explained: : Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace".1 In our Sisyphean struggle with this, you may envision us as pretty much flattened under the stone.

As per procedure, we create for each source a source note, a full reference note and a short /subsequent reference note, trying to use the suggestions and templates for French records as given in "Evidence Explained".

Here are our difficulties:

  • All of our research involves the use of French documents and archives, whether originals or copies, viewed either on site at the repositories or on the websites that they operate. We do not have access to and therefore never use Family History Libraries. Yet many of the "Evidence Explained" notes concern only Family History Library copies of (sometimes) the same resource. The Family History Library source may be simply a microfilm number, while the Departmental Archive source in France may have a title in words and its own archives code or number. These surely should be included in the citation, but how?
  • In giving the locations not of the documents but of their creation, particularly for parish and civil registrations and for census returns, the fact that the French civil administrative structure is quite different from that in the United States means that the two -- to our mind -- really cannot follow the same format. Additionally, the former has recently been reorganised. Allow us to explain at length:  

In France, the largest administrative division is the region, the number of which were reduced in 2015 from 27 to 18. Regions are divided into departments, of which there are 101. Departments are divided into arrondissements, of which there are 342. In most cases, an arrondissement is also a chef-lieu, something like a county seat; but where it is not, the arrondissement is administered by a person with the title of sous-préfet.

Arrondissements are divided into cantons, which are not a straightforward step in the hierarchy as they were established mostly to manage services such as the local police, firemen, local elections and - please note - census taking. Confusingly, a commune that is a large city can have many cantons, while a canton in the countryside may encompass many communes. In 2013, France had 4055 cantons.

Arrondissements are also divided into communes, the primary administrative level, created in 1789 from what had been church parishes. A commune may be a city, town, or village. A commune will have a mayor, a municipal council and, crucially here, the responsibility for the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths within its boundaries. Since the re-organisation of 2015, some but not all communes have been grouped into intercommunalities, to share administrative services and responsibilities. France currently has 35,585 communes.

These hierarchical divisions of territorial administration are, in descending order:


However, for a large city like Paris, the commune of France with the highest population, it can look like this:

Region-department-metropolitan commune-arrondissement

Since 1964, Paris -- ever the oddball -- has been both a commune and a department, divided into 20 arrondissements which are also cantons, so an example of the above hierarchy might be written as:

Ile-de-France - Paris - 9th arrondissement

In Paris and other large cities, the civil registration is carried out at the arrondissement level. In this case, an arrondissement is comparable to a borough in New York City or London (but imagine that New York City also had a borough named New York). At the same time, in the more general use across the rest of the country, an arrondissement is similar to a county within an American state or to a borough or district within a British county.

Trying to make this varied administrative structure, with different terms occupying different places in the hierarchy at the same time, fit into a single and rigid citation structure has proved nearly impossible for us. Nor can we always craft a citation that can fit with the recommendations for French sources in "Evidence Explained". Dear Readers, what do you do? How do you cite the sources you have found in France or on the websites of French archives?

We would like to propose a couple of things, to begin with, at least:

  • Because of the way that a term, such as arrondissement, can indicate more than one function or administrative level, and because a level of administration, such as a canton, can be in a higher or lower position, the function of places should perhaps be stated in the full reference note, thus, instead of the location part of a census note reading:

Saint-Martin-Choquel, Desvres, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais

it would read:

Saint-Martin-Choquel [code commune: 62759], canton de Desvres, arrondissement de Boulogne-sur-Mer, département du Pas-de-Calais

But, it has to be said that the above, though more clear, is a bit heavy. And what to do when, as with Boulogne-sur-Mer, the place is commune, canton and arrondissement all at once?

  • The code commune is something we like for two reasons:

1) It really is a lifesaver in eliminating confusion. Because France has numerous communes of the same name, such as Saint Martin, sometimes even within the same canton or arrondissement, the code commune is the only unique identifier. The code commune is not to be confused with the post/zip code, which is a different number; it is a unique number assigned to each of the 35,585 communes in the country by the National Institute of Statistics in France (which uses the acronym INSEE). The first two digits are always the number of the department, which also helps to be certain of the place. On the French pages of wikipedia, every commune is given, showing its code commune as well as what are its intercommunality, canton, arrondissement, department and region. One can type in the search box just the code and any garbled version of the commune name and, usually, the correct page will come up. The same is true of the French GeneaWiki website. So, we would like to suggest that, at least once, in one note or another, it be given in brackets.

2) The commune, not the canton or arrondissement, is the key location to know in searching for or identifying the provenance of most French civil records relating to individuals, so it, above all, has to be clearly identified. (More on this below.)

  • It is crucial that the name of the commune be given in every note. In France, few records are created or arranged at the arrondissement level in the way that US records may be arranged at the county level. EVERYTHING concerning civil registrations is organised from the commune level, as that is where the registers are created, in duplicate, and where one set is stored. So, any note that shows only an arrondissement and a department, but not the commune, leaves us profoundly uncomfortable. A short/subsequent note would more closely follow French custom if it gave the commune and department only.

Census returns also are created with the identification on the front page showing:

commune-canton-arrondissement-department (the last usually being pre-printed).

They are retrieved/arranged online by commune name as well. Again, it would make sense for a shorter note to leave out an arrondissement and/or canton name but never, ever omit the commune name.

Sample census cover 1


Sample census 2


  • Really, also, we wonder about the title used for parish and civil registrations. Instead of a generic term that seems to come from the Family History Library microfilms, ("États-civil", which is also ungrammatical) when we are using the copies on the websites of the Departmental Archives or other repositories, shouldn't we be using the series titles given there? For example:
    • "Registres paroissiaux et d'état civil" on the websites of the ADs of Pas-de-Calais, Aveyron and many others
    • "Registres paroissiaux, pastoraux et d'état civil" on the website of the AD of Charente-Maritime
    • "Etat Civil Numérisé des Origines à 1932"on the website of the AD of Cantal
    • "Registres paroissiaux et documents d'état civil"on the website of the AD of Bas-Rhin
    • "Etat civil et tables décennales (1501-1932)" on the website of the AD of Savoie


In addition to he above, which mostly applies to parish and civil registrations and census returns,  there are the military lists which can be found on almost every Departmental Archives website and which many of us use as sources.

Military recruitment lists from the 19th century onwards are something used a great deal in French genealogy as they provide many details about an individual, and as so many men emigrated from France when their 20th birthday drew near. Most are now accessible online, or at least the indices to them are. They were created in and are arranged according to recruitment bureaux.

These bureaux are in a military hierarchy of administration and geography that have little to do with the civil structure outlined in the background above. There were created, in 1874, 19 military recruitment regions, the largest category in the structure; there have been alterations since then. Their numbers have no relationship whatsoever to the numbers given to French departments, which are given in alphabetical order; but correspond to the regions covered by the different French Army corps. Each region was given 8 subdivisions of bureaux; these were located in selected but not all arrondissements or cantons, the selection having been based on population. The archives of the bureaux are stored in the Departmental Archives where the bureau was located.

We would suggest that the reference note concerning these give, in addition to the department, the bureau location which, again, could be indicated as something like "bureau de" or "bureau de recrutement de", but not attempt to follow the civil hierarchical structure.


As to French resources on the subject of citation, we have found precious few. One of the clearest is a blog by a history professor at Lille, one Emilien Ruiz, found at  http://devhist.hypotheses.org/1215   entitled, "Devenir historien-ne", and specifically the post "Comment citer un document d’archives, une thèse ou un mémoire ?". About half-way down that post, under the heading "Citer un document d’archives", Professor Ruiz gives a very clear explanation of notes de bas de page (e.g. full reference notes) and notes en annexe "Sources et bibliographie" (e.g. source list entry notes). However, his examples do not include precisely the document types of concern here.

Dear Readers, Ms. Mills has written to us that she might take into consideration any discussion on these points concerning the citation of French sources, so please do write in the comments section below what difficulties or solutions you may have found. 

(Many thanks to Carine for her thoughtful and thorough contribution in Comments below.) 

 ©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy






1. Mills, Elizabeth Shown., "Evidence Explained : Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace", Baltimore : Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009.